At the beginning of the week, the Australian writer John Birmingham wrote a blog post (What secrets are worth keeping?) in which he asked some important questions and which I thought deserved answers because they are likely to be questions that many other people have as well. So I have taken some of his concerns to form the basis of a sort of FAQ.
I have done my best to provide answers but please be aware that I am not a WikiLeaks staff member. So all I can do is give information that I have found for myself from Wikileaks representatives speaking publicly, and in some cases I give my own personal opinion as formed by watching and reading many interviews with WikiLeaks members (well mostly Assange of course).
For more detail about Wikileaks’ work see the Wikileaks About page. It is a long read though, and this page is not meant to be a reproduction of it. This FAQ is shorter and more specific.
If or when better answers become available I will be happy to post additions and corrections. If you would like to contact me to discuss this post please use the Questions? link in the sidebar on the right.
- Is there a secret file that Wikileaks would not release?
The issue is not just about secrets in general but about what is kept secret and what good that secret can achieve by becoming public. There is also the issue of the power imbalance that has been growing unabated over past couple of decades that has seen personal freedoms eaten away at by corporations and governments.
To the Wikileaks way of thinking individual citizens should have more privacy and freedom and organisations (being non-human) should be transparent and accountable to the citizenry.
So if we take the example of a random individual’s medical records, there would be no reason to make that public. However should that person be someone in a public position of great responsibility, and that person’s medical records are provided to Wikileaks then that would be because someone close to that person can see the official is not capable of carrying out their responsibilities adequately due to a health issue.
In the past the policy with possibly fraudulent documents would be to publish the document with the disclaimer that it has not been verified as genuine and to ask for help from the public in verifying the document. However, this was the policy back in 2007 and I am not sure if it is still the case. I would be grateful for any additional information on this point.
The Afghan War Diaries
- Were the names of Afghani collaborators left in the Afghan War Diaries, and have they been hunted down by the Taliban in revenge?
The US Department of Defense has announced that no Afghanis have been harmed or killed due to the release of the Afghan War Diaries.
Wikileaks did pull out 15000 documents from the original load of 90,000 documents precisely because of their potential to put innocent people in harm’s way. Perhaps not all names were redacted from the first release but the documents were old enough that those left were no longer in danger due to changed circumstances.
As you can see from this Al Jazeera report, the Iraqis already knew about the torture of their own by their own before the publishing of the Iraq War Logs. They already know what is going on because they live with it every day. The same can be said about the Afghan War Diaries. Three months after their release there is still not a single report of a death or even of an individual or family having to be moved or protected to keep them from reprisals. Despite the wringing of hands over imagined dangers the fact is that Wikileaks did protect those people. The Wikileaks harm minimisation process as applied to the Afghan War Diaries has been successful and the process applied to the Iraq War Diaries was even more stringent.
So as you can see there is information that Wikileaks would not release.
- Wikileaks is not a journalistic endeavour. It adheres to no standard of ethics and, being a relatively young institution, it seems to be evolving whatever standards it does have on the fly.
This is not true. I shall copy and paste from the Wikileaks About page to answer this.
The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history. We derive these principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, Article 19 inspires the work of our journalists and other volunteers. It states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. We agree, and we seek to uphold this and the other Articles of the Declaration.
WikiLeaks is an independent global group of people with a long standing dedication to the idea of a free press and the improved transparency in society that comes from this. The group includes accredited journalists, software programmers, network engineers, mathematicians and others.
Only in an ideal world would Wikileaks be able to provide specifics on who is vetting which documents. The privacy of Wikileaks workers is of the utmost importance not just to keep them safe but to also to keep the work flowing. There are plenty of governments (not just the USA) and other groups of varying scruples who would love to interfere or shut down the site and intimidating workers and volunteers would be one way to do that.
Here is what we do know:
- Julian Assange has two decades of experience in humanitarian and human rights causes.
- Kristinn Hrafnsson is a TV reporter in Iceland.
- On The Wikileaks Advisory Board are Philip Adams and Daniel Ellsberg.
(This short list had to be composed from memory as the relevant page at wikileaks.org is unavailable due to site maintenance.)
- To Julian Assange the release of war plans might seem to be a guaranteed way of avoiding conflict. But in the real world that sort of information hits the public realm with massive kinetic effect and could well tip two contending nations into war rather than away from it.
With regards to this question one would have to think of the circumstances under which such a leak would occur. In order for information like that to arrive in the Wikileaks inbox someone high up in the military would have to see the worth in releasing that information. Whilst the anonymity of leakers is well protected by Wikileaks technology, the leakers themselves also carry responsibility. It defies belief that an individual capable of being promoted to that level of security in the Armed Forces would also leak such information without giving serious thought to the consequences. If an amoral person attained access to such sensitive information he or she is not going to be interested in giving it away for free to Wikileaks. A glory hound would be put off by the anonymity aspect of the system and a selfish person would want to sell it to the highest bidder.
- The government holds any number of dossiers on you; your tax history, your medicare records, every instance of every dealing you’ve ever had with every level of government in fact. Do you believe that because a file is held by a public institution it should automatically be released into the public sphere.
There is little to be gained by anyone in releasing information on private individuals, and there is nothing “automatic” about it getting released publically. While I have not yet found an answer that specifically addresses this concern I doubt very much that anyone in Wikileaks would be in favour of violating the privacy of thousands of individuals. The emphasis is on making systems, governments, organisations and corporations transparent and accountable because they have enormous power over so many people’s lives. Individuals are far less powerful and therefore require a lot more protection of their privacy.
- While Assange and Co. are doing nothing more than vexing the likes of Stephen Conroy or bugging the freaks at Scientology, it’s all good fun and jolly hockeysticks.
Just to be clear, WikiLeaks is not Anonymous and they are not 4chan or, god forbid, /b/tards. They are not Electronic Frontiers Foundation. However it would be fair to say that WikiLeaks and Anonymous are sympathetic to one another and there may be some overlap with all but the /b/tards. Some people in WikiLeaks have come from the hacker world but certainly not all. A lot of people have been attracted to Wikileaks for their ability to destroy barriers to humanitarian work put in place by corruption.
- Likewise there are huge fields of data which might well serve some public interest by being released, but not as a massive info dump without context or explanation. Neither of which Wikileaks do. They tried something like that with the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, but wound up looking like foolish amateurs.
Whether or not the presentation of Collateral Murder looked amateur has a lot more to do with what people are used to hearing and seeing these days when form dominates over substance. As a matter of taste it is trivial to the matter at hand. In the end the information got out to where it could do some good and that was the whole point.
The argument about context is always brought up by those on the side of the soldiers. What Wikileaks did was give context to the victims of the incident. The men who died that day, and the children who were shot up, were not the enemy, they were not looking for a fight. Why is their context less important than that of the heavily armed US soldiers?
The video gave only a bare bones narrative that included the context of the victims’ point of view rather than that of the soldiers. I find it disturbing that only the soldier’s POV is valid and not that of the human beings who died. Assange has his opinion on what it shows and it differs from other people’s opinions, but now the grieving relatives know what happened and the children who were shot up are people instead of just fair game as blurry pixels on a screen. Those civilians were not just brushstrokes on any landscape. They were human beings with as much right to live to old age as any other civilian in any other country whether it is at war or not. Those adults and children did not cross the world to do good works in a war torn country. They’re just trying to live in the city they had the misfortune to be born in. This fact is constantly overlooked as we strain to make excuses for the soldiers who knowingly chose to take up a violent occupation in a foreign country and treat killing like a video game.
Assange has said that war debases soldiers and it does. There is no doubt about it. War involves kill or be killed training that brutalises human beings.
- But with power comes responsibility. It remains to be seen whether a protean, cell structured, largely anarchic group like this can ever properly internalise that.
WikiLeaks has an enormous sense of responsibility. It sounds like you’ve mixed up 4chan and Wikileaks.
Wikileaks is an archive, a clearing house, a library, a service to whistleblowers and a resource for journalists, researchers and lawyers. It is an agency to verify the authenticity of leaked documents. I suppose you could also say it’s turning into a geeky PR agency as well and yes a lot of the public relations work is being learnt on the fly because Wikileaks is a very frugal organisation with a DIY attitude. Perhaps some friendly PR company would like to volunteer to help them out one day.
Wikileaks does do fact checking even going so far as to send a team to Bagdad to interview survivors of the Collateral Murder incident.
It does check and add context to material, the context may not be to the liking of soldiers but it is equally real and valid context.